On Tuesday, June 11, the Inglewood City Council unanimously approved permanent rent control, limiting rent increases to 5 percent annually. It was a victory for the residents of Inglewood and a benchmark for surrounding cities, such as Pasadena, which shares a similar housing crisis among its renting residents. The latest victims of the crisis are the Washington 16, a group of tenants of a 20-unit apartment complex located on East Washington Boulevard who were served with a no-fault, 60-day notice to vacate.

On Friday, July 26, about 30 people, including the four members of the Washington 16 still living in the building, protested in front of landlord Jeff Lee’s posh Arcadia home.

PJ Johnson, who has already moved out of the building, led the demonstrators and demanded Lee return tenant deposits and abide by the city’s Tenant  Protection Ordinance.

Much like the Inglewood tenants, and so many before them, the Washington 16 found themselves in dire need of assistance from the Pasadena City Council.

How It Went Down …

Tenants were instructed by council staff to appear at 7:30 p.m. Monday, June 10 as their issue was listed as Item No. 21 on the agenda. It seemed like an ideal time; it accommodated the residents’ evening hours and allowed ample time for people, many of whom had not been to a City Council meeting, to become acquainted with the rules and procedures.

Working parents with their children (noted by the council), night shift workers who cut into their family and dinner time prior to work, and Jose Soriano, a college student who missed the first meeting of a summer course so he could attend the council meeting, were among the Washington 16 members who spoke.

Their concerns were unambiguous. Would the city help the tenants negotiate with the landlord? Would the city help negotiate a longer move out period? Would the city provide financial assistance? Specifically, financial assistance with the bridge time — the time between when they are paying rent for a place they can’t live in anymore and the deposit they have to come up with for their new homes. Further, what about the return of their deposits which the landlord has to return within 21 days of their last day of tenancy? That was something which no one expected the landlord to do in good faith. Another question was whether the city was comfortable with forking over $5,000 per household to get their residents new accommodations. What was the city prepared to do?

Calling the agenda item before the previously scheduled time, or before all of the residents of the Washington 16 had arrived, was not only a mistake, but it reinforced the residents’ mistrust in the process and lack of confidence in their city leaders. And to be honest, while foul language is not ideal in front of children, do you know what’s worse? Feeling like your time doesn’t matter and getting evicted from your home. Eviction is worse than any four-letter word hurled around by a council meeting interloper.

At least one tenant notified both Council member John Kennedy and Vice Mayor Tyron Hampton’s offices regarding their plight. No meeting was arranged. No help was provided upon that outreach. At least one of the tenants also called city Housing Director Bill Huang, and as of that Monday meeting there was no response. The city has the info of the building, the tenants who spoke, and those who contacted their council members and city departments. One would expect the outreach to come from the city, not the other way around. Comment cards have contact information. And how else can the city assist? The tenants want to stay. But if they cannot, how can the city facilitate housing within the budgets of our community members?

The city’s rent ordinance forces owners to pay relocation fees if they evict tenants within 18 months after taking ownership of rental unit.  The ordinance also requires landlords to pay relocation benefits to displaced tenants if the building is demolished, converted to condominiums, or permanently removed from the rental market. Tenants evicted so landlords or their family members can take occupancy of the unit are also eligible for relocation fees, as are tenants forced to move under orders by the government to vacate.

Unfortunately, as Washington 16 members learned, housing discussions are not approached from a tenant’s point of view. The City Council is too full of landlords who only view this issue from their own, privileged vantage points. This conflict of interest is questionable at best and counterproductive in terms of keeping Pasadena residents in their homes and community.

Sad Reality

The results of an investigation conducted by Occidental College political science professor Peter Dreier and Glendale Community College economics professor Mark Maier, “Pasadena’s Tale of Two Cities” (PW, Jan. 24), led to three conclusions:

First, Pasadena remains a city characterized by a wide economic divide. Pasadena ranks second among California’s 50 largest cities in terms of the concentration of income among the wealthiest residents and the gap between the richest and poorest households. For example, the average income of the richest 5 percent of Pasadena households ($547,864) is more than 45 times greater than the average income of the poorest 20 percent of households ($12,153).

Second, the economic chasm has widened since they wrote earlier reports. The percentage of low-income households remains the same, while the percentage of households with incomes over $200,000 increased. This trend results in a hollowed out middle class. The Pasadena City Council’s decision to adopt a municipal minimum wage (currently $14.25 for employees of businesses with 26 or more employees and $13.25 for employees of other businesses) has helped improve the lives of thousands of Pasadena workers and their families, but it still remains far below what is needed to make ends meet.

Third, “… Pasadena is becoming more and more expensive to live in. City policies are fueling gentrification, making it harder for low-income and middle-class families to live here,” the report states.

All of the above were applicable to the Washington 16. When their refurbished apartments come back online, the beginning rent will be $2,000. Too much for tenants in the complex which were comprised of single moms, young families, cancer patients, and the elderly. Some of these tenants, like many others, have been in Pasadena for generations. What is the end game here? 

Moral Values?

It didn’t take Vallejo Mayor Bob Sampayan long to show compassion for his fellow citizens. Mayor Sampayan said in a Vallejo Herald Times article that he had spoken with officials at a local apartment complex where renovations were planned at the facility’s two complexes, improvements meant to make them “pencil out” financially. Sampayan said he was concerned that some percentage of those impacted wouldn’t be able to find affordable replacement housing.

“Here we go again. Displace those who can’t afford to make a larger payment for those that can,” Sampayan said.

“So, these are going to become condos and they’ll displace over 100-plus Vallejoans that don’t have the income to purchase or move. Meet the new homeless folks. I’ve got some real problems with that,” he told CBS affiliate KPIX.

“I find this absolutely appalling,” Sampayan said. “It may be within the law. People have told me, yeah, they are within their rights to do this. But do you have any moral values is my question to them.”

Mayor Sampayan said he met with the new property owners and they were now promising to slow the process down, hold community meetings and offer some assistance to people having to relocate. But he said there was no indication that rents would be decreased.

Assembly member David Chiu’s bill to establish a statewide anti-rent gouging law to protect tenants across California from large rent increases recently passed the Assembly. The San Francisco Democrat’s bill, Assembly Bill 1482 which caps rent increases based on the Consumer Price Index plus 7 percent for all rental properties that are not subject to local rent control ordinances, is currently being considered by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The story of the Washington 16 is sad, but it’s becoming the norm, a norm that not’s being addressed quickly enough by the city of Pasadena. If Inglewood could do it before the finalization of AB1482, Pasadena should consider doing the same. If the mayor of Vallejo can make it a priority to establish weekly communication between the city’s renters and property owners, Mayor Terry Tornek and the rest of the City Council must be compelled to do the same.

Gentrification is the new Pasadena Way, but we have got to handle it better as a city … as a community.

James Farr is host of the podcast “Conversation Live.”